Mama’s Smile

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It was exactly one year ago today that I boarded a plane back to my sweet Mama to hug her, full of certainty that all would be okay.  Truth be told, somewhere beneath the conscious state of life there lied a hazy cloud of fear and a true clarity that if hope could be suffocated I would have certainly accomplished that with how tightly I was holding onto it.  That was the longest three hours of my life.  It’s strange how the body is what is oftentimes associated with restlessness when confined to a small space; but, the mind can be just as restless when equally as limited.  What I discovered that day is that it is also possible for the heart to take up so much room in your chest that it becomes fitful as well.

In all honesty, my memory of the day is much more like a snapshot of events displayed in a photo album.  I often wonder if in order for the mind to hold onto important experiences during stressful times, it must reduce the impact of information to snapshots instead because the full documentary would be way too much to relive.  I liken the day to a viewing with the old View Master from my childhood.  I’m able to peer through the eye piece, clicking through each picture, but not recalling all of the little information in between each slide…..wiping a tear from behind the sunglasses shading my swollen eyes….hugging my sister at the airport….walking into the hospital….seeing my aunt and cousin approach in the hallway…the look of concern on my twin’s face…my brother holding hands with his lovely fiance…my Dad’s comforting embrace…my aunt’s beautiful blue eyes filled with worry…….Mama’s smile………Mama’s laugh………Mama’s strength…….Mama……..

The whole day is sealed in my memory this way, which is so out of the ordinary for me.  My mind typically runs a reel of recollection, not simple snapshots.  I can only guess that my mind, heart, and body have decided to work together to ensure I’m still standing throughout the constant highs and lows of reliving these days.

It does stand that some information is too close to the heart to even place down on paper.  It’s as if it’s secured in a special spot that is only allowed access by those that experienced it together.  I know the struggles my family is having during this time and find comfort in the notion that they truly understand every single snapshot that invades each of our hearts and minds during this recurrence of emotions and feelings of such great sadness.  I also know that Mama is with me.  I can feel the warmth of her presence and see her smile at the forefront of my mind.  I will make it through this day….and tomorrow as well…and so on.  My promise to myself is to let the tears flow when they come and the laughter bubble up as each snapshot clicks into clear view reminding me of the amazing mother that I was so very lucky to call my Mama.

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The Inscription

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Today, as my body was pulled from its heavy dose of slumber, I seemed to instantly wake with pancakes on my mind.  This is highly unusual for me.  I typically wake with thoughts about Mom.  I was saddened by the prospect that today may be the preface to that inevitable evolution in this process.  At any rate, pancakes were on my mind and I could tell it was going to be one of those cravings that just wasn’t going to evaporate into thin air.  Something concrete was required to help it dissipate.

Since I am not one to make pancakes very often, a cookbook was going to be necessary.  As I browsed through my treasured collection of recipe filled bibles, I found that I instantly went to my most recent additions in hopes of stumbling upon a new favorite concoction.  However, as I flipped through, peered at, and contemplated adjustments, it became clear that sometimes new isn’t best.  Sometimes, the old, tried and true is ultimately what one needs.  I finally reached in and carefully pulled out the very first cookbook I ever received.  It is not one that I go to often now, typically opting for the newer, more en vogue cookbooks, but I had high hopes and few other options to rely upon.

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As I laid it carefully on the counter, I found my fingers gently running over it and memories of Mama coming to me.  Although the color was fading and the pages browned, spotted, wrinkled and torn, I felt certain what I was seeking was hidden inside.  I took my time in savoring this moment as I knew exactly what I would see when I opened the cover page.  In our family for years we have included an inscription in those cookbooks that we are offering to one another as gifts of celebration.  I knew that I would find that and as my anticipation lingered just under my emotions, I opened the book and found myself staring at exactly what I feel was destined for me today, “Happy Cooking, Love Mom and Dad, Christmas 1986.”  As I looked at the signatures, I realized that Dad had filled out the inscription.  I’m not sure why this affected me so much, but I found myself absolutely loving the fact that both of them had touched this gift and left their own mark to linger.

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So as I collected ingredients and supplies, measured amounts and blended to combine, I thought about how long it had actually been since I made traditional pancakes.  I truly couldn’t even remember.  It felt like old times.  It felt like being home with Mom in the kitchen and it felt nostalgic; but most of all, it felt like the mending of a broken heart and it soon filled me with love and happy moments with Mama.

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Mmmm, Mmmmm, Good!!

D.W. Cookie Co Chocolate Chip

Yesterday, I visited a local cookie store in our area, The D.W. Cookie Co., and was instantly transported into one of my Mama memories.  As far back as I can remember, Mama always allowed us to help out in the kitchen.  At first it was in small ways, like stirring the batter, or handing her things she might need for a recipe.  Later, it transformed into a much more involved experience.  Our kitchen had an open door policy at all times.  That is not to imply that we were allowed to just waltz right in and grab anything we wanted.  We were raised knowing that there was a purpose for all things in our house and whatever food we may stumble upon might very well have an ultimate destination on a much grander scale.  All this really meant was that we needed to ask Mama before devouring it. In the overall scheme of things, alone the ingredient may be good; but, in one of Mama’s creations, it was bound to be phenomenal.

That brings me back to the memory that I stumbled upon yesterday.  As I stood in this little independently owned business, tempted by the assortment of delectable, chewy discs displayed in front of me, I recalled my first true experience in our kitchen as “Head Chef.”  I decided I wanted to try my hand at baking and what better way to start than with some ooey gooey chocolate chip goodness?

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Now, Mom had a library of exceptionally tasty cookie treats; but being my new adviser, she decided a classic chocolate chip concoction would be an appropriate beginner challenge.  What I loved most about cooking with Mom was the ease with which she managed to do everything.  She allowed us to make mistakes without getting overly excited.  I think this is a true sign of not only an experienced cook, but one of an amazing teacher.  She never approached cooking as if there was only one certain way it could be done.  So as I journeyed through the process of making my first batch of cookies, I was coaxed, allowed to err, encouraged to ask questions, and ultimately guided with the compassion of someone who had a deep love of cooking and baking.

I remember those cookies were not as perfectly balanced as hers.  And as we nibbled on them, Mom explained what she thought might work better next time.  I love the fact that she allowed me to make mistakes, because that is ultimately how one learns to cook, through experimentation and an understanding that nothing is set in stone.

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As the years passed, I became quite the little baker and making cookies has always remained one of my absolute favorite things to create.  So yesterday, as I stood in this amazing little store with chocolate dripping from my fingers and smudged on my face, taste buds dancing and angels singing,  I thanked Mama for helping me to develop a true appreciation of the artistry of making cookies.  Because of her, I was able to truly express to the owner and baker, Devar Ward, just how much his skill is admired and his Chocolate Chip Toffee Cookie a true work of art.

No worries if chocolate chip is not your favorite.  He’s got plenty of delicious combinations to choose from at his store, The D. W. Cookie Co. in Canyon Country, California.  What I will say is….you must go and try them!  It’s like all the delicious goodness of childhood rolled up in one round, delightful, sinfully good bite!

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The Rest of the Story

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A while back, during my college years, a tad bit before the virtual world exploded into cyber space and super electronics became the norm, I used to love to listen to Paul Harvey‘s, “The Rest of the Story,” segment on a little thing called the car radio.  I loved how he took one story and delved deeper into it to provide a whole different aspect.  After publishing my post yesterday, I began to reflect more deeply on all the things that combined to make that day so special.  You’ve all now heard about why that one particular photo of Mama has such an impact on me personally.  But what you don’t know is some of the other factors that came to be that day, helping to make an unforgettable experience for us all.

To begin, I must say that every person in attendance contributed in some way.  Everyone had to alter plans and travel distances to be present.  You see, Mom was not in her hometown.  We had decided that placing her in a more central location to all who would be spending their days with her in the hospice facility was a more logical solution.  We were actually two hours away from where I grew up and my parents’ hometown.  We would have had it no other way.  We wanted Mama to be surrounded by those she loved as often as possible and for as long as possible.  We were all more than eager and strongly desired to contribute in any way possible to create a day to remember.

Patrick and Traci of course were the ultimate deciding factor in getting the wheels turning.  It was their kind spirits and abundance of love for Mama which guided their hearts.  It was also their generosity in allowing others to shower them with assistance and contributions as best we could. They took care of all the little details necessary for the wedding couple, including gathering up all their little kiddos, preparing them for the day and then finally themselves as well.

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My sister, Elizabeth, and her husband, Adrian, housed several people in their home during this time.  Her children gave up their bedrooms without hesitation and were always eager to assist any of us.  Elizabeth was the ultimate hostess, providing food and transportation for many.  So many of her generous friends dropped by with dinners, snacks, treats, and even flowers to show their support and to ensure that their sweet friend would not be overwhelmed by so many guests.

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My twin, Diane, spent long hours on the phone over several days dealing with schedule changes, flight arrangements, and car rentals to ensure that her husband, Scott, and three boys, who live several states away would be able to attend as well.

Mama’s sisters, Aunt Trish and Aunt Lou Lou, were by her side daily and rescheduled their days so as to be there to help beautify her for the ceremony and hold her hand during this whole process.  Aunt Trish provided something “old” by gifting Traci a broach to wear that was painted by Mama. They were more than a support; they were a shoulder to lean on and a hand to hold.

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As for Traci’s side of the family, her parents were taking care of their growing brood of grandchildren and helping to ease any stress for the happy couple in any way they could.  Patrick has twin girls and Traci has a son and daughter.  What a lovely group of people to combine into one loving household.

Traci’s sister, Rachel was a true expert in catering a last minute wedding.  It was absolutely fantastic and such a lovely addition to the day.  She also somehow magically created all of the bouquets and boutonnieres for the wedding party.  I am not sure I have ever seen more beautifully arranged flowers in my life.  I don’t know how she did it!  She definitely sprinkled a little fairy dust on the affair!

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I felt truly blessed and frankly, terrified when my brother and Traci asked if I would photograph the entire event.  I typically do all of my work outside and this was a bit out of my comfort zone. My hesitation was for a mere second and then I promised that I would do my best; but deep down inside felt emotions might just get the better of me, leaving me in a state of frenzy on the special day.  I have considered myself a solid photographer for years; but, this was somehow on a whole different level.  The ceremony was beyond emotional; but viewing this immensely intimate moment in time through my insanely timid photographer’s eye that day, was one of the most illuminating experiences I have ever had the joy of living in.

There remain two exceptionally sweet moments that can only be considered divine intervention.  Early on, there was much question in locating the perfect spot to hold the ceremony.  That was soon resolved by the nurses who strongly suggested that Mom’s bed should only be rolled out as far as the doorway to her room.  We looked around and sighed, having the beautiful image in our minds of just what the original venue would have provided, and yet knowing in our hearts what was truly important.

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Early on the morning of the wedding, two of Traci’s sweet friends, disguised as miracle workers, waltzed in with twinkle lights, paper bells, and flowers to spruce the place up.  As soon as the nurses caught sight of this, they rushed down to assist by providing sheets to hang from the ceiling and frantically began moving all medical equipment out of view.  I very vividly recall the tears that formed in my eyes at that moment.  What a sight to behold!  The love pouring forth from Traci’s friends and the most genuine desire to provide support by the nurses was more than evident.  It was felt by us all, deep down in those special spots reserved for exceptional moments in humanity.

Finally, as Dad prepared for the day, he realized he was lacking appropriate attire for the wedding.  He felt certain he could get away with the pants he had, but needed to stop by the mall to buy a shirt and tie.  As he wandered the unfamiliar grounds of the massive mall, gazing into the windows of unfamiliar stores, he came across a shop that appeared to have just what he needed.  There was only one problem.  The store didn’t open for another hour, which he did not have the luxury of.  So Dad did what any great man would do in his hour of need, he knocked on the door and flagged down the person inside.  The salesman came to the door and promptly said, “We don’t open for another hour.”  At that point, Dad took a deep breath and relayed his story to the young man.  I feel certain that at that very moment, this man looked into Dad’s eyes and felt the magnitude and importance of the day.  He then simply asked Dad to wait a second and on his return he opened the door to Banana Republic and welcomed Dad in for his very own individual shopping spree.  That wonderful salesman assisted Dad in locating a shirt and tie worthy of the man that was to officiate the ceremony of marriage for his only son.  And although the shirt was wrinkled and his pants worn, I have never seen my Dad look more distinguished than he did that day.

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The service was amazing!  There was not a dry eye in the room!  It was, by far, the most intimate, emotional, loving ceremony I have ever had the privilege of witnessing.  It represented what all weddings should be about, the love of two people and those who share in the best, most successful well wishes for their life together.

“And now you know….the rest of the story!”

The Challenge

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Recently I was presented with the challenge of selecting my absolute favorite photograph ever taken.  Mind you, that is out of thousands.  However, I found it to be an easy choice.  For me the photo does not have to be perfectly composed, or even perfectly focused; but it absolutely must be from the heart.  By far the most cherished photo that I have ever taken is this one of Mama.  It was taken two days before Mom’s passing and during my brother’s wedding.

Originally, my brother and his sweet fiancee were to be married on my parent’s 50th Wedding Anniversary at our ranch house with both families present.  So many plans had been made, flights had been purchased, hotels reserved, and catering set.  However, things drastically changed when Mama’s health faltered and she was placed in hospice just days prior to that.  Knowing how much she wanted to witness the marriage ceremony and their desire to have her present, my brother and his fiancee decided to change the venue.  In less than two days, all family members altered their flights, plans, and prior arrangements to attend the wedding of this selfless and loving couple.  Amazingly enough, every family member was able to make arrangements to attend.  The hospice facility staff was beside themselves with assisting in the preparation since this was the first and only wedding they had ever had in their facility.  They were as excited as we all were.  They too, had grown to love Mom instantly, as so many did.

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During the days in hospice, Mama seemed to be fading with moments of her true spirit shining through, allowing times of true joy for all of us.  She slept a lot and couldn’t seem to focus very clearly; but we all knew she was alert enough to know that a wedding was going to take place.  On November 19th, with my father officiating and my mother looking on from her hospital bed, two of the most amazing people on this planet were joined in matrimony.  That day, the day of this photo, was Mama’s most coherent day.  It was as if the sickness had left her body to allow her complete delight.  She was laughing, hugging, talking, and blowing kisses to us all.  It was during this time that I turned the lens on her and captured the purest moment of clarity and happiness in Mama that day.  She passed away two days later and just two days shy of their 50th Wedding Anniversary.

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It has now been exactly seven months to the date since her passing and posting this photo brings the same raw emotion as it did the day I peered through the eyepiece and captured her true essence.  For me personally, the photos which evoke the most emotion are the dearest in our hearts. This photo of Mama is by far my most emotionally charged and favored photograph ever.  It manages to grasp onto those ultimate moments of beautiful clarity and the memories of those final days spent with my dearest, sweet Mama.

Popcorn, Orange Slices, and Jerry

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Ahhhh…the ease of a beautiful Saturday!  I don’t think there is anything better than a relaxed, carefree, sunny Saturday.  As a kid we lived for this day.  This day represented freedom, family, friends and Jerry Lewis.  Yep, you heard me right….Lewis….Jerry Lewis!

In our household, bribery was often incorporated into the daily workings of our homestead corporation.  To give you an example, we could enjoy television at free will, daily, as long as none of us kiddos received a “C” on our report card.  As luck would have it, I could typically be counted on to ensure that we never saw the glimmer of the illustrious, illuminated box; therefore, consistently guaranteeing no television for eight more weeks.  Not sure if this brilliant notion was swiped from the whole Punxsutawney Phil Groundhog phenomenon, but it sure felt that way.  So starting Friday nights we had a pretty packed viewing schedule; but Saturdays, oh glorious Saturdays, now those were the day’s dreams were built on.

Pajamas, popcorn, orange slices and a good Jerry Lewis flick.  That’s what Saturdays were made of in our home.  I can’t rightly recall if it was Mom or Dad that loved Jerry Lewis.  My guess leans towards Dad though. It seems to be a little more in his wheelhouse.  Regardless, we all began to love Saturdays with Jerry.  It represented laughter and popcorn tossing competitions.

As you know, my life on the child labor market started pretty early on and popcorn vending sure seemed to fit right nicely into that realm.  Dad initially was the master of popping, but he more than willingly seemed to pass that torch onto us as soon as feasible.  Unlike laundry duty though, no hard feelings were harbored when popcorn vending came into play.  We all seemed to love that job.  We had a pot that appeared to have fallen off the back of a chuck-wagon traveling along the Trail of Tears that we used to pop corn in.  It was a dull metal, dented and charred from excessive use.  I really have no idea what might have come out of that pot prior to our popcorn days, but it was surely seasoned well and produced popcorn the likes of which you can’t find today.

The popcorn was delicious, but it was Mama’s fine palate that decided to marry the taste of buttery popped corn with juicy orange slices and that, my friends, is beyond compare.  There was nothing fancy to it, oil popped corn with melted butter and perfectly cut orange slices used as chasers for each buttery bite of puffed corn.  I don’t know why, but those two scents and tastes, ’til this day, cause my mouth to water, eyes to sparkle, and a certain feel of home to enter my heart.

Now back to Jerry Lewis.  If you’ve never experienced an afternoon of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis films, you must.  At first, you might question why you are even watching them.  They can be a bit over the top at times….okay…most of the time.  But as time progresses, you start to realize this is truly depicting what life is all about.  We live daily adventures, accepting life’s ups and downs as they come, developing the ability to laugh at ourselves and bring a smile to the face of others all along the way.  It’s about lasting relationships that provide support and love, whatever form they come in.  Jerry Lewis may play this type of loving, loyal character in his movies…but he very much encompasses this belief in his own life as well.  We saw ourselves in his fictional character and wanted to emulate his overwhelming compassion in real life.

I can’t help but compare his bright personality and abundant empathy with Mama.  Maybe that’s why his films resonate so profoundly with me even today.  Long after our popcorn and orange slice Saturdays have since ceased, each one of us still embodies the desire to contribute to charitable foundations through activism.  We learned this from both our parents and I can’t help but think that Jerry, popcorn, and orange slices had a little to do with it too.

 

 

The Yin and Yang of a Strong Woman

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Each morning I arise with a flood of Mama Memories.  It’s the strangest sensation.  No matter what is going on in my life that might otherwise take that momentous time slot, snapshots of Mama push their way to the forefront of my mind.  I think it must be because my body, just prior to that, is in its most relaxed state and allows for those things that should take precedence to come forth.  Sometimes they’re happy and sometimes they’re filled with sadness, regret, and loss; either way, they tend to bring tears.  So as the months have progressed, I have become accustomed to wet eyes at the beginning of each day, knowing that my body is most likely just trying to release a bit of stress.

Today, I’m remembering just how generous and strong Mama was.  I’m not sure if anyone outside of her family is truly aware of just how accurate these two words describe her.  I think people feel generosity in the moment that they are included within it, which I also believe to be completely normal.  But how wondrous would it be to have vision enough to witness the magnitude of which some people actually are.  Mom would be one of those that would be awe inspiring to witness.

I don’t know exactly when she started the practice of taking food to every single doctor’s appointment she went to.  My guess is it was around the time she started having her joints replaced due to Degenerative Arthritis or possibly after her month long stay in a hospital in Louisiana with her leg in traction; regardless of when, Mom was really good about acknowledging those that took care of her.  It was nothing out of the ordinary for her to whip up a batch of Ranch Crackers or sugar cookies as an offering of thanks to the office staff, nurses, and her beloved doctors.  I still marvel at her ability to sit in an appointment and come out with as much information about their lives as they did about her ailments.  Mom may have come in as a patient, but I guarantee, she left as an honorary family member. I also tend to believe that some of this showering of appreciation came from growing up with a father who was a doctor that exhibited the compassion, patience, and kindness of a saint.

Now, back to my initial thought; how amazing would it be to witness a timeline of those rare individuals that truly show generosity as second nature and not as a deliberate act in recognition of a specific moment or occasion?  Mom’s timeline would most definitely be far stretching, if not infinite.  If we could all see that much goodness in people, witnessing them at their finest, most delightful, and giving moments, would our impressions of them change?  Would we accept their flaws more willingly?  Would we aspire to know them more intimately and without reservation?  Mom was a master at this.  She could somehow recognize the best in those around her and become lifelong friends with them instantly.

Don’t get me wrong, she was also strong willed and if someone took advantage of her, that did not go unnoticed.  She did not waste time on sugar coating things.  She would simply express the obvious and then reevaluate her thinking in regards to that particular person or situation.  I loved this fire in her.  I respect the fact that she could be so soft and yet so solid as well.  I know that I carry this same fire within myself.  I know that when I feel wronged, I will allow my thoughts to be heard in a respectful and logical manner.  I’m not sure if Mom considered herself to be strong, but if I could say it to her today, I would!  I would thank her for showing me that a weak body causing weak moments in life does not equate a weak heart as so obviously and consistently she exhibited as the years of arthritis and cancer took over her strength of body.  She never let this fact overshadow her generosity and positive attitude towards life and its challenges.  If I could say it to her today, if I could tell her something I should have said years ago.  If I could have one more Mother’s Day with her, I would say, “I wanna’ be just like you when I grow up, Mom!”